“Get Schooled”: LeBron James, Viacom, and the Gates Foundation Team Up to Talk Education

. Saturday, August 15, 2009
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I have to commend Viacom, the Gates Foundation, LeBron James, and Kelly Clarkson for taking an interest in the deep educational disparities that exist in the U.S.

Viacom has apparently decided to do some image management by producing an upcoming 30-minute special entitled featuring LeBron James and Kelly Clarkson entitled, “Get Schooled: You Have the Right”.

An excerpt from the press release posted on Slam Online:

“Today, in America, far too many young people enter adulthood unprepared for college, career and life,” said Allan Golston, President of the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Changing this reality requires the full engagement of the corporate and nonprofit communities, working harder to support students, families and schools to create an expectation in every community that a college education is possible for all young people. Through the creativity of Viacom’s team and the strong connections its networks cultivate with their audiences, we have a unique ability to reach young people and their families on this critical issue.”
I sent this out over a listserv that I’m on and a friend sent back the following response:
This made me read James' bio (one of the first sports bios I've read). James experienced an extraordinary amount of support from outside his family. My question to the producers of this show would be, how could we structure social affordances for "all kids" who have this "right to access to college," so that those (millions of kids) who come from "less-than-adequate" households can be taken in by an elementary school sports team coach to live in a "stable" home?

Or am I missing the point?
Nope. He’s not missing the point…but he might have missed the most glaring irony of the whole thing.

Last I checked, LeBron James decided to go to the NBA instead of college…and according to Wikipedia, Kelly Clarkson skipped college for American idol…


What exactly is the message of this program if neither of the stars they have chosen even went to college?

James in particular is an exceptional individual who has led an exceptional life – anybody remember his high school games being broadcast on ESPN? – in a professional sports universe full of exceptional people. What exactly are we supposed to learn about education from these examples?

Hmmm…maybe I’m missing something.

Just to be clear – I have no problem with an athlete like James deciding not to go to college when he was quite clearly the best 18 year old basketball player in this solar system. It just seems like he’s…well…off message for this particular effort.

But where could we find a relatively popular athlete who did go to college and has risen to the top of their game?

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker maybe? WNBA star, Olympian, and former NCAA Academic All-American?

Doesn’t she better represent the spirit of the program?

I understand she is not nearly as popular as LeBron James -- it would be ridiculous to even think of saying something that absurd -- and I’m not suggesting they made a mistake.

But Parker is a young rising star who succeeded in college and in sports…and it’s worth celebrating that. It would have been an interesting way to spotlight a female role model.

Transition Points:

In other news, recently signed Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick is also contributing to the development of our youth by speaking about dogfighting...

"He's a big influential person and what he says matters," said one of the youth.

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Storm – Sun Reflections: Bird the Facilitator vs. Whalen the Combo Guard

. Friday, August 14, 2009
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How could I possibly watch a Seattle Storm – Connecticut Sun game and not start thinking about point guards?

In a game that features Storm point guard Sue Bird going up against Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen – arguably the two best point guards in the game -- it’s almost impossible not to dig deeper into the comparison: who is the better point guard?

What makes it so difficult to make a decision is that they really are different players. But that hardly prevents people from making the comparison.

Mike DiMauro of The Day
suggests that even Sun fans might have split loyalties as they struggle with their love for UConn that predates the Sun in Connecticut.

But in their own state, the Sun's competition, spoken or otherwise, is UConn. And while the college and pro games are markedly different, there's just no convincing the masses.

So that means that you go beat Bird when she's here. You beat Diana. You get people to notice. Then you do what's truly important and win in the playoffs.

”Ever since the finals in '04, we've had intense games with Seattle,” said Whalen, whose 11 points, seven assists and four rebounds were huge. “It's big to beat them. They have Olympians over there.”

And one of them is Bird, who remains about as beloved a player as there has ever been in Connecticut lore and legend. Happily for Whalen, she was given one of the loudest ovations of the night with Bird in the house Thursday when it was announced she became the 12th player in WNBA history to earn 900 career assists.
One of the commenters on DiMauro’s article even pointed out that the public address announcer at Mohegan Sun Arena introduced Bird with a home-town “Suuuuuuuuuuuuuu Bird!” welcome.

Bird gets most of the accolades as is -- All-Star selections, All-WNBA selections, and Olympic gold medals…does she really need to get a hero’s welcome in Whalen’s house?

I know Whalen won’t say it publicly – which is classy – but with Bird in town and all that comes with that, the Sun's 64-53 win must have been just a little bit sweeter.

But let’s put winning aside for the sake of keeping my point guard obsession alive, even if neither Whalen nor Bird care to engage this dialogue.

Forget all the hoopla and ghosts of UConn success past, present, and future...I’m focusing on the performance on the court.

And I know I might be run out of Seattle for saying this… but if I were to make a tentative statement about who’s the better point guard based on last night’s game…

Edge: Whalen.

Now clearly, it isn’t fair to make this sort of claim based on one game of evidence. However, what I found interesting is that there were elements of each player’s performance last night that perfectly represent why I might give the edge to Whalen as the better point guard for the season as a whole.

And really the way I classified each player yesterday gives away why I’m making the claim – Bird as a facilitator and Whalen as a combo guard.

Yes, we can say that they are just two different types of point guards: Bird is probably the better shooter, while Whalen is the more physical player who uses her size and an amazing ability to see the angles of the game to do a little more off the dribble. But you would have a hard time convincing me that one is a significantly better playmaker than the other by any reasonable standard.

So if I consider them approximately equal as playmakers, I start to look at other things and the fact that Whalen can do more on the court because she’s a more physical player makes it easier for me to claim that she indeed is the better point guard.

And I have three rather simple reasons for that: her ability to attack the basket, her scoring efficiency, and her defensive versatility.

Attacking the basket

The way Whalen and Bird started the game last night really says a lot about their styles as players.

As stated previously – and mentioned by Sun coach Tom Thibault at halftime – Bird is probably the better shooter while Whalen is more physical and a little tougher.

True to form, Bird’s first three plays last night were three point shots, all good ones in rhythm. After that, she made two passes in the half-court to shooters that missed.

In contrast, Whalen’s first three plays were a fastbreak lay-up after a steal, a three pointer, then a missed contested layup on a fast break. Her next three were a nice pass to center Sandrine Gruda on a fast break that resulted in free throws, a missed jumper, and an assist to Gruda for a free throw line jumper, set up by a decisive dribble in the flow of the offense and a well placed bounce pass.

The point is that when Bird gets off to a cold shooting start, she sometimes disappears for quarters at a time. When Whalen is not shooting well, she keeps herself involved by staying in attack mode and finding ways to stay involved in the game, whether that be rebounding, making the right pass, or driving to the basket.

But when Whalen does attack the basket good things happen both for herself and others. It keeps the defense off balance, allows teammates to get easy scoring opportunities, and allows her to get high percentage shots. In last night’s game in particular, Whalen set the tone that allowed her team to win the game.

Scoring efficiency

However, the most important part of Whalen’s aggressiveness driving to the basket is that it gets her easy scoring opportunities. Some numbers from Swanny’s Stats illustrate this point.

Bird relies more heavily on her midrange jumper for scoring and unfortunately has not had a very good shooting year from that range. As of July 30th, almost 30% of her field goal attempts were from the 16-20 foot range but she has only made 30.4% of those shots, which is the 8th lowest in the league.

In contrast, just under 20% of Whalen’s field goal attempts come from the 16-20 foot range and she shoots the fourth percentage in the league from that range. And that’s just the beginning of the shot selection story.

Whalen is among the league’s top 50 in both free throw rate and 2 point percentage whereas Bird’s 2 point percentage is just inside the top 100 and her free throw rate – just below 10% -- is one of the lowest in the league. (Storm teammate Katie Geralds is the lowest of any qualified player at just under 4%). Free throw rate can also be considered a proxy for a player’s aggressiveness in driving to the basket in traffic – you don’t get fouled on a shot very often standing around the three point line and swinging the ball.

So what does this set of numbers tell us? Although Bird is generally considered the better shooter – and I won’t dispute that – Whalen does a better job of creating scoring opportunities for herself that she is able to convert – taking less long shots, attacking the basket more often, and finding her way to the free throw line.

In terms of overall performance, Whalen is both a facilitator in terms of setting up baskets for others and a scorer in terms of finding easy baskets for herself. That ability to penetrate the defense and attack the rim is a critical ability that many teams look for in a point guard. It’s not that Bird cannot do that, but this season, Whalen is a bit better at it.

Defensive versatility

This actually isn’t my idea but Thibault’s. And though he’s a bit biased, I think he’s right.

During the halftime interview last night, Thibault discussed the strengths of Bird and Whalen. To paraphrase, he said that although they are about equal defensively, Whalen’s physicality allows her to sometimes guard 2’s and 3’s.

I don’t think that means she’s a defensive stalwart by any means, but it certainly gives a team more options when trying to find winning combinations to put on the floor.

While this is not the most convincing argument for choosing one player over the other – WNBA.com has both of them listed as 5’10” 150 pounds – it’s an interesting point that Thibault made.

But maybe this all come down to a matter of a difference in mentality?

It’s not that Bird cannot drive, cannot be an efficient scorer, or cannot defend.

It’s that Whalen brings a physicality and toughness to the court in a way that Bird does not.

And that attitude almost prevents Whalen from disappearing for long stretches of time in the same way that Bird does – and that’s without even talking about Whalen’s rebounding ability, which is among the best of any point guard.

This is what I mean when I label Whalen a “combo guard” – she is a facilitator and an efficient scorer. It makes her more dangerous and more valuable to her team. Ultimately, it's about decisions the player makes on the court...and I do think we can evaluate the quality of those decisions.

But when Bird turns it on – as she did at the end of last season and in spurts during games this season – she is the best. Hands down. No dispute here.

I would just argue that Whalen is able to make that happen more consistently.

Transition Points:

  • One thing I’ve been keeping track of more closely is lost assists. I count lost assists only on plays when the shooter misses a shot that would have given the passer an assist OR the shooter gets fouled in the act of shooting on a play that would have given the shooter an assist. Last night, I counted four lost assists for both Bird and Whalen. In fact, most point guards who are able to drive and find open players end up tallying 3-4 lost assists a game.

    So ultimately, while it’s interesting to keep track of just in terms of documenting what a player has done, I’m not sure if it’s worth using over the long haul to compare players. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know: is there a player that has significantly more lost assists than others? And if so, why? Were they just not setting up the shooters well or are their shooters just missing wide open shots that the player creates? Hard to tell.
  • I was emailing Shoals about the merits of going to see the Sun-Storm game in Seattle when the Sun come this way…and trying to think of how to describe Whalen to a NBA fan. I came up with Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams. Accurate? I’ll have to do more thinking on that.
  • Another interesting, though perhaps useless, thing to analyze about point guards is their crossover. During the Storm-Phoenix Mercury game I went to with Shoals a while back, we got lost in this crossover wormhole…but he recently came out of it and did so in style with a post diagramming different types of crossovers and entitled, “Out of the Wormhole”. Very nice work by him and Tom Ziller.
  • For my money, the best WNBA crossover is between Cappie Pondexter and Tanisha Wright. Renee Montgomery might get there one day. Between Bird and Whalen – edge Whalen.
  • One thing I find really interesting about the WNBA is that it is still in competition with women’s college basketball in a way that most other professional sports aren’t. Even in the way people around the WNBA – players, coaches, commentators – refer to teams as “programs”. For a moment I thought this was unique to the WNBA, but then as I thought further about it, I could imagine that NFL football is overshadowed by college football in certain places around the nation.

    For example, I attended the University of Michigan for two years and there is no way the Detroit Lions are bigger than UM football in Michigan. I imagine similar scenarios for NFL teams in relation to Florida’s trio of University of Florida, University of Miami, and Florida State University. And are the Tennessee Titans really bigger than University of Tennessee football? And haven’t there been entire movies made about how big high school football is in Texas, even if the Dallas Cowboys did just build a fancy new stadium?

    A totally irrelevant thought that I found interesting because of the way UConn seems to overshadow the Sun.

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Describing Point Guard Styles

. Thursday, August 13, 2009
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Given that I’ve made posts this week about San Antonio point guard Becky Hammon, Atlanta point guard Shalee Lehning, and a game that featured Washington point guard Lindsey Harding, you probably could have guessed that another point guard evaluation post was coming up.

Which does bring me back to a question that Bob Corwin of Full Court Press asked me recently: why am I so interested in evaluating point guards?

One need look no further than tonight’s matchup of the Seattle Storm vs. Connnecticut Sun, a game featuring two of the league’s top point guards in Storm guard Sue Bird and Sun guard Lindsay Whalen.

And really, isn’t it sort of fun to try to make an affirmative statement rather than being all polite and saying they’re both very good?

The subject does not interest Lindsay Whalen. She just shrugs and says quietly that she isn't inclined to wonder if her status as the WNBA's transcendent point guard — or potential Olympic star — has been impacted by the immense popularity and talent of Sue Bird.

"I don't know," Whalen said. "I don't think about that stuff. I am focused on my team. She is focused on her team. There's nothing I can do about what the perspective of the fans or the media might be. You can't think about it. You can't control how people may think."
So Whalen doesn’t care and Bird probably doesn’t either.

John Altavilla of The Hartford Courant suggests Bird and Whalen are point guards 1 and 1A in the U.S.…which is a little bit more conclusive, but still hedging toward a non-answer.

But isn’t part of being a fan caring about these questions? Why do else do we watch sports if not to see who’s best?

So seriously, who’s the better point guard? And what about other guards having really solid seasons like Hammon, Harding, or Phoenix guard Temeka Johnson?

Well…I did take another stab at answering this question and hit a road block that I brought up the other day: aside from bringing the ball up the court and making the first pass to start the offense, there really isn’t a set of critical attributes that make one point guard inherently better than another. Being a point guard is more a matter of team expectations – what does a team demand of their point guard? And what are their teammates’ strengths?

That seems to make it almost impossible to make simple rankings of one point guard against another. For example, consider Sun forward Asjha Jones’ comment comparing Bird and Whalen, from Altavilla’s article:
"[Whalen]'s been an All-Star and people who play against her understand she's one of the best point guards in the league. She and Sue are totally different sides of a coin, different approaches. Lindsay is more physical, Sue depends on her finesse, skating and sliding around on the floor.”
So given that each player brings unique strengths to the position, we cannot judge them on a universal standard but on the basis of what function they serve for the team. And that’s partially why the point guard rankings I’ve done in the past feel so unfulfilling – even after laying out the evidence for why one guard is better than others, it has to come with a whole set of qualifiers.

And I haven’t even mentioned defense yet…

But perhaps we could ask a different question: how well does a player perform the function they serve for their team?

From there, perhaps we can establish a means by which to compare point guards: the best point guards are a) those that have demonstrated the ability to perform more functions than others or b) perform a given function better than others.

The question is actually more interesting for evaluating the quality of second tier point guards – backups or fringe starters – who aren’t quite as obviously dominant as the consensus 1 and 1a.

So instead of returning back to the rankings, I decided to focus on the function each player serves…and comparing them in terms of how well they perform what they do well. It may leave the question unresolved today, but perhaps lead to a better analysis in the future.

The player styles spectrum & assist ratio

Last summer I took a stab at this by laying out a set of five point guard styles based upon a combination of the work done by David Sparks and some of my own observations about point guard play.

Basically, what I noticed was that various styles of point guard play could be pretty well defined by metric: assist ratio, which is the percentage of a player’s plays that end in an assist.

It’s helpful to start with Sparks’ player styles spectrum, which is divided in two halves: the top half is populated with perimeter players – where the point guards are -- and the bottom half with interior players. It is the poles at each end of the horizontal axis that will be the subject of this inquiry. The spectrum from near the end of last season is below (better because it is a full season of statistics):

The left pole indicates non-scorers whereas the right pole indicates scorers. You may also notice that each pole has a unique color. So the color gradations of the players indicate the degree to which a player is more one thing (perimeter, interior, scorer, utility player) than another. The size of each player’s name indicates the relative quality of that player – how productive they are at their given style

This is where the point guard styles framework comes in.

Obviously, a point guard that falls on the right side is likely a scorer whereas a player who falls on the left side is more of a non-scorer that does other things. Well, as it turns out, for point guards, their assist rate is a strong indicator of where they fall on the spectrum – point guards with higher assist rates tend to fall on the right, whereas players with lower assist rates end up on the right.

This means that just looking at assist ratios I can move across the spectrum and start to figure out what style of play each point guard occupies. But obviously, there’s more to being a point guard than scorer and non-scorer. And as it turns out, the statistics can provide some insight into that as well.

The point guard styles framework

Based on a combination of watching players play and looking at this spectrum I came up with five pretty distinct point guard styles last summer. Ultimately, what we can determine is the different types of decisions that each player is expected to make based upon their performance and how well they do that. Here’s what I came up with:

: the basic function of any point guard – comes down the court and gets the team into the offense. They are likely players who just get the job done without taking risks. This type of point guard probably has a below average usage rate and average assist ratio. Examples: Noelle Quinn, Vickie Johnson, Kelly Miller.

Distributor: These are the players who have the court vision and ability to find players in scoring position and get them the ball to pick up the assist. They might take a few more risks than an initiator, but also limit egregious mistakes. This type of point guard is characterized by a below average usage rate, an above average assist ratio, and an above average pure point rating. Examples: Temeka Johnson, Tully Bevilaqua, Ticha Penicheiro.

Pure facilitator: These are the players who will make the highlight film passes that make you think they have “eyes in the back of their heads”. They take considerably more risks and might have more turnovers, but also have the ability to break down a defense and create scoring opportunities by forcing the defense to shift. This type of point guard is characterized by an above average usage rate, an above average assist ratio, and above average pure point rating. Example: Sue Bird.

Scorer: These are point guards who can break down a defense and score for themselves more effectively than the pure facilitator. They have a scorer’s mindset, but also have the skill to initiate or distribute. These types are characterized by above average usage rates, below average assist ratios, and at or below average pure point ratings. The statistic that really sets them apart as well is their high points per zero point possession rating. Examples: Becky Hammon, Renee Montgomery.

Combo guards: So by defining all the other types, it’s easier to find a good definition for the nebulous “combo guard” label. I would define these guards as different than shooting guards in point guard bodies. To me, a combo guard is a player that can create scoring opportunities for themselves and facilitate for others. It’s a fine line but I think numbers help to define it. These players would have above average usage rates, assist ratios, and pure point ratings, but also have a high point per zero point possession, but may also simply have a balance of all of the above. In comparison to the other types, there’s a wide range of quality for this one. Examples: Lindsay Whalen, Lindsey Harding, Dominique Canty.

Where do we go from here?

From here, we could look at the quality of each guard in each category to determine the top guards of each type. However, it is likely that we will be able to make substantive claims about overall quality after establishing that -- yes, Bird, Hammon, and Whalen are different types of players, but with that established, can we establish that one of them does what they do better than another guard?

More on that later...

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Deanna Nolan Quietly Exudes the “Superstar Attitude”…At the Expense of the Mystics

. Wednesday, August 12, 2009
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Some basketball players amaze me with their ability to overwhelm their opponents.

Other players stun me with their ability to make things happen that I couldn’t have imagined.

But I marvel at Deanna Nolan.

Moreso than any other player in the league, it seems that the only to fully appreciate her as a basketball player is to watch her play – stats, box scores, and game summaries just don’t seem to do her justice.

The Shock’s 81-77 victory over the Mystics last night is the perfect example.

Most of the summaries of last night’s game justifiably focus on the Shock’s surge/Mystics collapse in the fourth and Nolan’s game-high 23 points, further evidence that she is getting healthier by the game.

However, Nolan actually set the stage for the comeback victory with her performance in the third quarter. Nolan just looked unstoppable in the third quarter, hitting a variety of jumpers over whichever Mystics defender had the misfortune of guarding her.

Once the Mystics started swarming her when she got the ball in an attempt to stop her from scoring, she started finding open teammates and setting them up for scoring opportunities. Though she didn’t actually record an assist in the third, I marked her with four “lost assists”, baskets on which she would have been credited with an assist had her teammate made the basket. Two were very likely assists – Mystics guard Alana Beard blocked a layup attempt by Shock forward Cheryl Ford; forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin was fouled on a layup attempt after a beautiful drive and wrap-around pass from Nolan. But two others were open shots that the shooter just missed.

Nolan was outstanding in the 3rd quarter. And it was as though she expected all along that she would win the game. From the WNBA.com recap:

The Shock rebounded from a 53-41 deficit late in the third quarter.

"We weren't worried,'' Nolan said. "We were hitting shots. It was just a matter of getting those stops. We were in an offensive rhythm ... attacking, getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line.''
That is what makes me marvel at Nolan – she makes everything seem so effortless and matter-of-fact.

And what’s there to worry about if it all seems to come so naturally?

It’s not just the way she literally glides along the court looking like she’s on Astroturf while everyone else is running through quicksand. Nor is it the way floats over her defenders making it almost impossible to actually contest her shots as she hovers above their outstretched arms.

And she does it all with this expressionless game face that makes her seem like more of a cold-blooded assassin than someone merely playing a game.

Nolan is not expressionless in the way San Antonio Spurs post Tim Duncan is, whose glare never changes but somehow constantly exudes fierceness. Nor is quite like Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen who almost seems to wear a look of disdain for those that would dare expect to influence whether his shot is on or off.

Nolan’s expressionless game face is almost indifferent to the current circumstances or the people who valiantly endeavor to stop her. Those other five people in the opposing jerseys almost don’t matter as if to say:

I don’t care what just happened. I don’t care what you do next.

In the end, you can’t stop me.

Nolan strikes me as one of those players who is so good that she is unstoppable simply because she decides to be unstoppable.

Call it arrogance or confidence but the best athletes in any sport legitimately believe they cannot be stopped.

That’s not to say they don’t put in hours of practice over the course of years to develop the capacity to be unstoppable…but the fact is, that it’s as much a mindset as it is physical tools.

It’s what retired NBA forward Charles Barkley calls the “Superstar Attitude”.
‘If a guy was sleeping and thought he could stop me, I’d go over to his house in the middle of the night and slap the hell out of him. If he even was dreaming about the fact that he could stop me, I would go to his house, and I’d just walk in his room and slap the hell out of him, and say, ‘Wake up. Don’t even think you can guard me.’ That’s the mentality you have to have if you’re gonna be a superstar in this league.”’
To borrow a lyric from Detroit-area native Eminem – one of the few people on the planet who can match the uncompromising bravado of Barkley – it’s like Barkley has an attitude that does not even allow for the possibility of “thinking of having them thoughts thought up” about stopping him.

As I watched the Mystics play the Shock last night, that’s exactly what I was thinking – Deanna Nolan is not even entertaining the possibility that a Mystics player might be able to stop her.

However, the difference is that Nolan does not seem to have the desire or need to go around forcing people to recognize that she’s better than them.

Rather than focusing on the insecurity of the short-view full of “what-ifs” and “maybes”, Nolan seems to have a sense of the long-view that allows her to put each fleeting moment in perspective, making the play-by-play almost insignificant in the context of the big picture.

If the Shock manage to sneak their way into the playoffs, Nolan’s unflappable demeanor would almost best embody the veteran presence of mind that allowed them to turn things around while all about them younger teams collapsed under the pressure of a post-season.

But it’s almost as though opponents can think, feel, or dream whatever they want because they simply pose no threat to a player like Nolan.

What they do just doesn’t matter.

Transition Points:

Shavonte Zellous chimes in
on teammate Deanna Nolan in a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"There are a lot of great players in this league, but my teammate, Deanna Nolan, is the toughest player I've had to guard," Zellous said. "And I have to guard her every single day. She really pushes me. She helps me a lot with my game because she plays hard all the time. That's been a great thing about this team. They've all been so helpful and made me feel so welcome."
“Hold up, hold up -- stop the beat a minute… I’ve got something to say…” Yes, Eminem is probably the worst possible person to quote in singing the praises of a WNBA player…given that the WNBA is a family league and all that. I mean, could you imagine him showing up and opening a Detroit Shock game to get the crowd going? The concert might get folks hyped…but…

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Rookie Rankings: Can Anyone Dream of Catching DeWanna Bonner?

. Tuesday, August 11, 2009
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I started to write a rookie rankings post and ended up writing a long post about my thoughts on Atlanta Dream point guard Shalee Lehning.

To summarize the previous post, I found it curious that she was not listed in the latest rookie rankings on WNBA.com at all given that she’s a starter on a playoff caliber team that recently won four games in a row.

Tough crowd, I guess.

However, I have a hard time not putting her among the top ten rookies.

Washington forward Marissa Coleman has not played particularly well since returning from injury.

Chicago Sky guard Kristi Toliver is glued to the bench.

And it’s hard to establish that a player like Connecticut Sun center Chante Black is actually having a bigger impact on her team than Lehning (Black was once a starter for the Sun, but no longer with the return of center Sandrine Gruda).

If you judge rookies on…

a) what they do well,
b) their ability to make things happen when they are on the court, and
c) their ability to contribute to their team’s success in their first season.

…then how can a player starting at point guard be left out?

So as you may have guessed, Lehning is among my top ten rookies, using the same evaluation framework I used for my past rookie rankings. Of course, it's a guide to identify players, not a rigid determinant of who's best.

And you are also safe in assuming that DeWanna Bonner still leads my rookie rankings.

So where does everyone else fall?

1. DeWanna Bonner: Duh. Shouldn’t take much explanation.

It's basically more of the same – there are currently 14 players in the league who are ranked among the top 50 in Boxscores (a player’s individual contribution to team success), usage rate (how well a player is able to create scoring opportunities while on the floor), and scoring efficiency ratio (the ratio of a player’s scoring plays to all non-scoring plays as defined by turnovers and missed shots).

The only other people in that company are MVP candidates and All-Stars…and…

2. Angel McCoughtry: the Rookie of the Month for July is still the most talented rookie of this class, although Bonner’s situation has allowed her to outperform McCoughtry.

Like Bonner, McCoughtry has demonstrated the ability to make things happen with the ball in her hands…and on the defensive end as well. She might become one of the best all-around players in the WNBA as her game matures. You can’t help but see the ability when you watch her game – she can get shots off the dribble, drive to the basket, and draw contact. She can pass the ball and is going to become a very good on ball defender.

Her one glaring weakness is rebounding and it will be interesting to see if she improves on that over the course of her career.

3. Renee Montgomery: As mentioned in the previous post in comparison to Shalee Lehning, Montgomery is not quite the distributor many people want to see from a point guard, but she is a very efficient scorer.

In what could have been a tumultuous season with the coach resigning and forward Seimone Augustus going down to injury early, Montgomery has managed to contribute to the team’s success in key moments. She is about average in terms of the metrics used above to judge Bonner and McCoughtry, but is among the top guards in the league in terms of 2 point percentage.

And her ball handling ability, court sense, and ability to get to the basket for easy scoring opportunities make her easily one of the most impressive rookies of this season. In addition, she is a very solid defender, using her athleticism well to guard players on the ball.

4. Shavonte Zellous: It’s a tough call between Montgomery and Zellous, but I went with Montgomery because she is starting on a team that has been in the thick of the playoff hunt this season at one of the toughest positions in sports. But by the same standard as Bonner and McCoughtry above, Zellous is the next most impressive rookie.

While her team has not performed quite as well, making it difficult to argue she’s contributing as much to team success, she is still among the best in the league at getting herself to the free throw line, creating scoring opportunities for herself, and doing it with high efficiency relative to the league.

As an undersized guard, it would help her to distribute the ball a little more effectively (her assist rate is in the bottom 50 of the league) and shoot a better 2 point percentage (currently 38.84%), but she has otherwise been a very impressive performer this year.

But most importantly, Zellous is the best perimeter defender of anyone of the rookie group. She uses her quickness to create problems for opponents and does a pretty good job of help defense.

5. Courtney Paris: With more playing time, Paris has demonstrated that she can contribute quite a bit to a WNBA roster. She is the second most efficient scorer in the league behind Storm forward Lauren Jackson and has consistently had among the league’s best rebounding rates.

As she continues to adjust to the WNBA game – particularly developing her post moves against WNBA defenders – I would expect her to be even more effective.

6. Anete Jekabsone-Zogota: I have not seen her play a whole lot and she only started playing well recently, but lately, she is easily among the best rookies of this bunch. In her case, it’s not that she does one particular thing well but that she does a little bit of everything. She is already becoming an outstanding all-around player for the Connecticut Sun.

The “lately” qualifier makes it somewhat difficult for me to rank her…but if she can keep this up for the remainder of the season, she’ll end up vaulting ahead at least three of the rookies ahead of her who have been rather inconsistent themselves.

7. Briann January: I happen to like her game, think she has great court vision, and she looks extremely comfortable on the court. The only thing holding January back is that she is not a very efficient scorer right now. However, as a point guard, she’s contributing quite a bit to the Indiana Fever backing up Tully Bevilaqua and that should count for something. It’s also worth noting that she is a solid perimeter defender on a team that relies heavily on defense. The fact that her defense is notable makes her an even stronger player.

8. Megan Frazee: Frazee, very similar to Sacramento Monarchs forward Crystal Kelly last year, is just very often in the right position at the right time to make plays, both on offense and defense. It makes her a valuable asset to a very good San Antonio Silver Stars team.

She’s decisive when she gets the ball and shoots with range. Storm coach Brian Agler once noted that she’s more of a perimeter player right now than an interior player, but when the Storm attempted to put forward Katie Geralds on her on August 1st in Key Arena, she went right to the post and worked Geralds inside. She’s emerging as a solid rotation forward for a team with an embarrassment of riches at the position.

9. Shalee Lehning: Extended thoughts on Lehning are posted here.

And as I stated in that previous post about Lehning, I’m not saying she’s the top rookie or even the best at her position, but you’d have a really hard time naming a rookie that has actually consistently performed better than her this season...because there are not that many rookies even starting for their teams.

10. Quanitra Hollingsworth: If I continue to base my evaluations on the rookie evaluation framework I’ve used above, Hollingsworth is the next best rookie. And it’s close between her, Chante Black, and Marissa Coleman. So what is the deciding factor?

Hollingsworth is among the best offensive rebounders in the league in terms of the percentage of rebounds she gets while she’s on the floor. Offensive rebounding is an extremely valuable asset and the demonstrated ability to do that means she is able to extend possessions for the links and put herself in position for easy baskets.

That ability as well as an average 2 point percentage (44.59%) make Hollingsworth my choice for #10 over some other very worthy players. By the way, another player who flew under the radar last year as a limited offensive rebounder but ended up emerging in her second season: Crystal Langhorne.

Transition Points:

For more about how I went about doing these rankings, please see the Rookie Ranking Framework here.

Kristi Toliver is in the unfortunate situation where she has had neither consistent playing time nor a consistent role on the team.

In terms of performance, she has not had a very good rookie campaign. Yet although I've been quite lukewarm on her for most of the season, she has demonstrated the talent to be an effective player. Hopefully she'll eventually get that opportunity that she's waiting to seize.

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Revisiting Rookie Point Guards: How Does Atlanta’s Shalee Lehning Compare to Her First Round Counterparts?

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If you were to select a WNBA All-Rookie First and Second team, would Atlanta Dream point guard Shalee Lehning be on it?

And if not, why not?

What makes the question interesting to me is that for some reason, people tend to focus on every single one of Lehning’s deficiencies – athleticism, scoring ability, defense, not a fast break player – rather than the one thing she has clearly established the ability to do well: running a team.

She had her detractors when she came out of college.

She was dismissed as irrelevant after the WNBA draft given the 11 player rosters this year.

She was dismissed after making the Atlanta Dream over incumbent point guard Ivory Latta.

I ignored her when I wrote about the WNBA's talented group of rookie point guards earlier this year.

She was dismissed as nothing more than a “ra-ra” player after becoming an important part of the Dream’s rotation.

And now she’s still dismissed after transitioning into a more substantive full-time starter on a potential playoff team. She is not even included among WNBA.com’s top 10 rookies despite starting 8 games for her team, tied for the most of any rookie.

During the Dream’s four game winning streak from July 22- August 1st, Lehning had 17 assists and 2 turnovers.

It’s not that she was playing All-Star caliber basketball, but she does what her team needs – she brings the ball up the court and initiates an offense that includes two All-Star post players in center Sancho Lyttle and forward Erika de Souza and two volume shooters in forward Chamique Holdsclaw and guard Iziane Castro-Marquez. So if she’s playing with four players who are better scorers than her by almost any reasonable standard, it’s actually a good decision to just get the ball up the court and set them up for scoring opportunities.

Lehning has exhibited the ability to perform the duties of a good point guard. And if she is able to exhibit that ability as a rookie, she deserves a bit more credit than she’s getting.

Yet you can still find people who will dismiss her in one of two ways:

1) All she does is bring the ball up the court and pass it (which I find to be a baffling critique); or
2) If the Dream had better point guards, then she wouldn’t even be on a WNBA roster.

Somehow, an assessment of what she does well is disregarded in favor of a general assessment of her ability that is based upon a counter-factual argument.

But why is that occurring?

In my opinion, the point guard position in basketball is second only to the quarterback position in football as the toughest position for a rookie to learn in sports…and Lehning has done an admirable job not only managing that learning curve, but doing it well enough to earn a starting spot over veteran competition on a playoff team.

To be clear, I’m not nominating Lehning for Rookie of the Year. I’m not even suggesting that she’s the ideal point guard for the Atlanta Dream. Nor am I suggesting that she should be considered the best rookie point guard (I maintain that the best rookie point guard this season is Minnesota Lynx point guard Renee Montgomery).

What I’m suggesting is that if you judge Lehning on what she’s done for the Dream overall rather than harping on what she has not done, she has actually demonstrated that she is a solid point guard.

So how would I rank her relative to the rest of the rookie point guards…or the rookie class more generally?

What does Lehning do so well?

Put simply, Lehning makes outstanding decisions with the ball given her limitations and rarely makes bad mistakes.

It’s not a terrible starting point for a rookie.

And I'm not just going to make a simplistic assist to turnover ratio argument. I'm talking more about how well Lehning plays the position.

As of yesterday, she leads the league in assist ratio – the percentage of plays she makes that end in an assist -- at 49.06%. To put that in perspective, the player in second is Sacramento Monarchs’ point guard Ticha Penicheiro. That also reveals a quirk with this particular number – if you don’t shoot much and pass a lot, then of course your assist ratio would be high. Nevertheless, the fact that half the plays she makes end in an assist is impressive as a rookie.

Here’s a brief comparison to the other three rookie point guards: Montgomery, Indiana Fever point guard Briann January, and Chicago Sky point guard Kristi Toliver.

Lehning: 49.06%
Toliver: 25.97%
January: 24.5%
Montgomery: 18.22%

Lehning also leads rookies in John Hollinger’s pure point rating, a metric that assesses a point guards’ ability to create scoring opportunities for others per minute on the floor. As a reference point, Los Angeles Sparks point guard Kristi Harrower has maintained the top pure point rating for most of the season and currently has a rating of 5.78. Here are the rookies:

Lehning: 1.84
January: .18
Toliver: -2.02
Montgomery: -3.125

Whether looking at these numbers or watching them play, it is fair to say that Shalee Lehning is the more effective distributor of any of the rookie point guards who have played a full season.

She’s not as flashy as January or Montgomery as a ball handler and creator, but she is mechanically sound and does the simple things extremely well, such as making entry passes to All-Stars or getting the ball to the open shooter at the right moment.

At this point it would be perfectly reasonable to comment that these numbers seem to be the opposite about common sense assessments of who the best point guards are – I have just provided two metrics in which Shalee Lehning and Kristi Harrower are the leaders!

What am I thinking?!?

What both of these metrics do is establish a point guard’s ability to make decisions about distributing the ball to teammates and running the offense. Relative to the rest of the WNBA, Lehning is making very good decisions with the ball and is very effective at setting up her teammates for scoring opportunities.

However, as I have explained in past point guard rankings previously and in yesterday’s post about San Antonio Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon, there are many ways to perform the duties of point guard – ability to distribute the ball is only one means by which to do so.

Scoring ability counts and that’s obviously what people hold against Lehning.

Lehning is not a scorer. And yes, that does make her an incomplete player despite the fact that she’s a very effective distributor.

And it should be extremely clear that by now that Montgomery is the best scorer of the rookie point guard crew.

Montgomery’s athleticism, outstanding ball handling ability, and ability to finish at the rim make her a very difficult player to stop. She first showed off her ability to score in traffic off the drive in an overtime win against the Washington Mystics on July 7th and pretty much did the same thing in a home loss against the Silver Stars on Sunday night.

While Kristi Toliver is clearly the better shooter (when she plays), Montgomery right now is the best overall scorer of any rookie point guard. She is also second among rookies in true shooting % and scoring efficiency ratio (the ratio of scoring plays to non-scoring plays as defined by missed shots and turnovers).

However, one way to assess overall scoring ability is to look at 2 point percentage, which can be something of a proxy for how well a player is able to get themselves easy shots and has been described as a very important WNBA statistic:

Montgomery: 52.43%
Lehning: 48.57%
Toliver: 44.23%
January: 38.88%

In fact, Montgomery is one of four guards in the top 15 in the league in 2 point percentage, right behind Becky Hammon (52.6%). The fact that Montgomery’s assist ratio is so low (also close to Hammon’s 19.2%) is offset by her scoring efficiency and ability to create easy shots for her team.

Will Montgomery need to get better as a distributor in order to be effective as a team leader? Of course.

But the split among this year’s crop of point guards – Lehning and January as distributors, Montgomery and Toliver as scorers – serves only to illustrate just how difficult it is to play point guard as a rookie. And that's not to mention the fundamental communication and leadership skills that it takes to run a team.

Given all those factors, Lehning probably deserves credit as the best distributor of the bunch right now.

Establishing reasonable expectations for a rookie point guard

A post on the Hoopinion blog yesterday further reinforces the point about the difficulty of making the transition from college to the professional ranks as a point guard.

It boils down to a very simple claim, backed by a look at rookie combo/point guard drafted outside the NBA draft lottery from 2003-2008 since the changing of enforcement of hand-check rules:

Given the difficulty of learning the point guard position, first year performance of rookie point guards drafted beyond the lottery will not clearly establish the path of his career.

How might we apply the same thinking to Shalee Lehning?

By focusing on what she does well in terms of what we know about the WNBA game – she creates assists, she minimizes turnovers, and she shoots a relatively high 2 point percentage by WNBA standards.

Not only are these indicators that Lehning is an effective point guard right now, but also that she probably is on her way to a solid career, if only as a backup.

With work in the off-season and a year of experience under her belt, she very well could become a better scorer.

But as for her standing as a rookie right now and judging her on her performance rather than arbitrary standards for imaginary point guards, we can say that she is an effective starter on a playoff team.

If that does not merit consideration among the top rookies, I’m not sure what does.

Transition Points:

Click here to see my latest rookie rankings....just in case you want to figure out where I plugged Lehning in after my extended analysis of her...

The obvious comparison to Lehning as a rookie point guard
is New York point guard Leilani Mitchell...and clearly Mitchell is not having a particularly strong sophomore campaign. But somewhat similar to Lehning, she is most effective as a distributor when her team is effective as a unit. And thus far this season, it’s safe to say that the entire Liberty team has underachieved, if not played worse than they did last year. Otherwise, Pat Coyle would likely still have a job.

In response to my last point guard rankings,
Bob Corwin of Full Court Press got in touch with me and we have had an ongoing conversation about point guards and how people around the league think about some of the players I ranked.

At some point during this conversation, he asked me why I was so interested in evaluating point guards. And I suppose I didn’t have a good answer.

It started last season by noticing people’s comments about the effectiveness of Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird’s during an early season shooting slump. But maybe what precipitated that was that I was something of a defensive combo guard in high school and Isaiah Thomas was one of the first players that ever caught my eye in the NBA.

However, Lehning’s rookie year performance probably best embodies why I am interested in creating a framework for evaluating what it is point guards bring to a team. People make very arbitrary assessments of point guards based upon normative assumptions about what constitutes a "good point guard" that actually reflect people's thoughts about what makes a "superstar point guard".

For example, in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs have won championships with both Avery Johnson and Tony Parker, two very different point guards. Last year's NBA finals featured a matchup between Derek Fisher and Tony Farmar vs. Jameer Nelson (all-star) and Rafer Alston (former And 1 player). The previous finals winner was led by second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, who still has no jump shot to speak of.

All of those players were vital to their team's success, but very differently.

There are many ways to play the position and it depends more on the situation than any rigid set of qualities.

However, Corwin also made the point that while there have been a few great point guards in the WNBA, the point guard position has never had a great player...and part of my struggle is to detach myself from NBA point guard standards and think more deeply about the WNBA, which does not have many dominant point guards in its short history...interesting point I'm still chewing on...and the reason why further point guard rankings are on hold.

Sacramento Monarchs' guard Ticha Penicheiro relayed a story about an interaction with coach John Whisenant that I found interesting regarding point guard play:

On the amount of trust Head Coach John Whisenant puts in her: “He’s always saying he wants me to be Steve Nash or Chris Paul and just go in the paint and make something happen so we don’t call many plays sometimes. He just pretty much wants me to go out there and get in the paint and either shoot or give the ball to one of our post players or our shooters. He is always encouraging me to do that. He says ‘Be Steve Nash out there, be Steve Nash!’”
Obviously, Lehning is no Steve Nash...which is yet another point of critique...but uh...how many point guards have won two NBA MVPs anyway?

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Hammon's Playmaking Ability Beats Lynx: Is Hammon the Best Point Guard in 2009?

. Monday, August 10, 2009
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With 12 seconds left and the game tied at 87, San Antonio Silver Stars’ All-Star guard Becky Hammon stood near the mid-court line and faced up one-on-one against Minnesota rookie forward Rashanda McCants.

As she dribbled the clock down to about 7 seconds before really making a move to initiate a play, it seemed logical that the Silver Stars had put the ball in Hammon’s hands to take the final shot.

And why not?

Hammon is one of the craftiest offensive weapons in the WNBA and a rookie didn't seem to stand a chance against her.

With about five seconds left, Hammon dribbled around a Sophia Young screen, in a play that seemed to be a pick and roll. With Young quickly covered by Lynx defensive stalwart Nicky Anosike in the paint, Hammon kept the ball, temporarily mishandling it after taking one of those “not me” bumps from Lynx forward Tasha Humphrey on the wing.

Then Hammon worked some All-Star magic and showed why she's among the league's best players.

Hammon kept the ball for herself turning the corner and splitting McCants and Lynx guard Renee Montgomery. With two seconds left and Anosike in between her and the basket, Hammon took to the air trying to hit a running jumper. Seeing that she had no shot with Anosike in front of her and two other players around her, Hammon spotted center Ann Wauters wide open just inside the free throw line after Humphrey got lost on the rotation after bumping Hammon on the wing.

Wauters hit an uncontested jumper at the buzzer, sending the Lynx home with an 89-87 loss after a hard-fought fourth quarter comeback.

Add the Lynx to the list of teams who have been victimized by Hammon’s playmaking ability.

She set up a similar buzzer beating play to All-Star forward Sophia Young for a Silver Stars victory over the Storm on July 28th. But she’s also been dominant in losses to Sacramento, Seattle (August 1st), and Atlanta.

Nevertheless, when I talk to people about the league’s best point guards this year, they’ll normally list Sue Bird, Lindsay Whalen, Lindsey Harding, and then Temeka Johnson.

When they come to Hammon, they give a response like, “Well, she’s a great player, but not really a point guard.”

To be honest, since I’ve started watching the WNBA consistently last year, that’s how I’ve felt about Hammon. Despite the fact that WNBA GM’s voted Hammon as the third best point guard in the league in the pre-season survey (tied with Ticha Penicheiro and Katie Smith), it has always struck me as difficult to cast her as what people might traditionally consider a point guard.

Hammon definitely handles the ball well enough to be considered a point guard, but shoots the ball enough to seem more like a shooting guard. It has thus been tempting to cast her as a small scoring guard instead of a point guard.

However, after watching her in person at Key Arena on August 1st and against the Lynx last night, I think it’s probably time that we stop qualifying statements about Hammon and just consider her a point guard.

And if we consider her a point guard, has any point guard in the league been better this season?

Probably not.

What is a Point Guard?

Coincidentally, an article from a San Antonio NBA blog entitled "What is a Point Guard?" holds some insight into how we might expand our traditional notions of who “counts” as a point guard.

The blog essentially characterizes a point guard in much simpler terms than I have in the past with my analysis of point guard styles:

Once it is established that a player can effectively bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense – which is no easy task against pro-level athleticism and defense – defining a point guard is more a matter team-specific expectations than a rigid set of attributes.

He uses Tony Parker as an example of how a point guard fits within a specific system:

However, it's not just individual man-to-man pressure that a point guard has to handle. They also have to handle traps both full court and half court. At times last year, George Hill struggled with all three. Full court man-to-man. Full court traps. Half court traps. When he struggled, we ended up with Bruce bringing the ball up court or a turnover. Neither of which is conducive to the Spurs scoring.

Why don't teams do this against Tony? Well, a couple reasons. One, Tony is a very good dribbler. He is very difficult to trap because of both his dribble and quickness. Because of this, he can frequently beat the trap alone which puts the Spurs in a 5 on 3 situation. If the other team puts full court man-to-man pressure on Tony, Tony is usually fast enough to blow by his man which leads to a 5 on 4 situation. In short. Tony is dangerous offensively. The Spurs run a lot of very high screens to be able to have him shake his man and attack a big at the free throw line. Why would the other team GIVE them this situation by employing a full court press? The answer is, they don't.
Of course, Parker’s particular style of play and athletic attributes are not necessary to play the point guard position – we can all think of a range of much slower and non-scoring point guards who have played the position well over time (Mark Jackson comes to mind).

The same type of analysis could be applied to any basketball team in order to establish what they might expect from a point guard: what are they trying to accomplish? And does this particular player allow them to do it?


The reason people may tend to disregard Hammon as a point guard is that she might appear to be spending more time scoring than initiating a team’s offense.

Her assist ratio – the percentage of plays on which she creates an assist -- is18.53%, just outside the top 50, well below that of most point guards in the league. Her pure point rating – a metric that measures how well a player creates scoring opportunities for others when on the floor – is also just outside the top 50 and well below that of the league’s top point guards.

In addition, although she is a rather efficient scorer, she is also a volume shooter. So when you add it all up, it just seems that Hammon would not be the type of player whom we would label a point guard.

However, what Hammon does extremely well is use the threat to score as a means by which to create opportunities for others. She’s not a point guard who is racking up assists just by swinging the ball to an open shooter – Hammon is often driving and forcing the defense to shift in ways that create open shooters.

And right now, Hammon is doing the job of creating scoring opportunities for others better than anyone else in the WNBA.

If being a point guard comes down to a matter of decision making – more specifically, making the decisions that help their team score points – then understanding Hammon as a point guard should come down to an evaluation of her decision making. If she is the best scorer on the floor in almost any game she plays, then creating scoring opportunities for herself is actually a good decision.

Her team needs a player who can penetrate and create offense for themselves and they need someone who can get the ball to All-Star forward Sophia Young and center Ann Wauters. Hammon’s ability to make efficient scoring decisions in addition to finding ways to set up others should put her in conversations as one of the best – if not the best -- point guards in the league.

But maybe the discussion of how we classify Hammon really doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s sufficient to just say she’s a great player, as Sue Bird commented after the Silver Stars' August 1st loss in Seattle.
“She’s such a tough player,” said Bird, who guarded Hammon at times throughout the game. “She’s really, really creative. Really, really deceptive. She’s able to separate herself, even at her height, against players that are 6-5 and get her shot off. And I think the one thing I would use to describe her – the one quality – is that she’s just a winner. And she makes plays down the stretch that not many people in this league can make.”
If Hammon can win enough games to get the Silver Stars to the playoffs, she will be a strong candidate for MVP of the WNBA.

Transition Points:

Renee Montgomery was very impressive down the stretch of this game, ending a 12-0 run by the Silver Stars in the 3rd quarter and catalyzing a 10-2 Lynx run in the 4th that got started the Lynx’s comeback. And really for Montgomery it was more of the same – her outstanding ball handling ability allows her to get by defenders and get herself open for layups off the drive. Her athletic ability makes her an extremely effective finisher.

But the most impressive thing about Montgomery to me is her defensive intensity. She’s tough and willing to take on just about any defensive challenge. With her athleticism, she’s able to stay in front of most players in the league and pick up steals. If she develops her range and continues to grow as a defender, Montgomery may be among the top point guards in the WNBA in the near future.

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